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The model's not broken

0 Robert Levine

The symphonoblogosphere has been abuzz with stories about the labor troubles in Seattle and Cleveland, and these are indeed big stories. But there are other negotiations hanging fire as well. Unless I missed something, the Met management’s proposal to cut salaries by 10% has still not been resolved, while Detroit’s been having an extremely difficult negotiation for months now. And then there was the recent news that the New York Philharmonic has posted a record deficit of $4.6 million for last season and is projecting one almost as big for the current year.

The current meme in the orchestra world (at least on the management side) seems to be “the model’s broken.” It’s never stated explicitly what exactly is meant by “the model,” although my read is that “the model” is shorthand for “paying what we’ve been paying,” or even, on occasion, “paying musicians for 52 weeks.” Of course, in the most severe economic downturn in the past 70 years, lots of things are going to look “broken.” Look, for example, at the state of pension funds, or the auto industry, or the housing industry, or the airline industry, or a lot of other industries. It appears to be a great time to be a really, really large bank. For the rest of us, not so much.

But what’s happening in the above orchestras (and, to be fair, in lots of others), is neither surprising nor completely representative of the field as a whole. Two of the institutions mentioned above, the Met and the New York Phil, have benefitted greatly over the past decade or so from the success of the financial industry. The recent success of a few large banks notwithstanding, this is not a good year to be dependent on the health of Wall Street.

Cleveland and Detroit are towns with deep, deep economic woes. It’s hardly surprising that the house orchestra at Ground Zero of the implosion of the American auto industry is going to be in a world of hurt. And the last time I visited Cleveland it looked like something out of a really grim SF dystopia. What’s broken in Detroit and Cleveland is a lot bigger than “the model.”

Seattle is hurting in a different way, as I wrote here. It is not the norm for an orchestra the size of Seattle to have the kinds of fundamental governance issues they appear to face, but apparently it can happen. That proves nothing about the state of “the model” either, unless it is to demonstrate what the best orchestra managers have always said, which is that the board runs the orchestra, for good or ill.

But look at Los Angeles, which just reached an extremely rich settlement - one comparable to the one reached by the San Francisco Symphony a year before. Clearly it’s possible to pay musicians well without running crippling deficits. All it takes is a good board, excellent management, and a community that’s not struggling economically. The last, of course, is to some extent a matter of simple good fortune - orchestras don’t choose to be in particular communities; they’re just there. But the first two are not beyond the reach of most orchestras in this country. And, unless one believes that the American economic model is broken, then most American cities will not be struggling forever. Their orchestras should not base fundamental structural decisions on the notion that bad times are here to stay.

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